Though still in production at the time of writing, the Mafia: Definitive Edition remaster feels like it’s stretched between two extremes. It wants to pay homage to a well-liked yarn, ensuring players in the modern era can still experience Tommy Angelo’s rise to power. But it also has to translate game design and mechanics from twenty years ago that haven’t aged terribly well in ways that feel satisfying.
Where Mafia: Definitive Edition has made most of its improvements is in the game’s presentation. It’s high-resolution rebuild of the city of Lost Heaven and its expressive, motion-captured character models give the proceedings a sense of life and immediacy. It’s such great work. The art team at Hangar 13 has a lot to be proud of. Every cutscene feels intimate like you’re seconds away from smelling the cigar smoke thick in the air. Every room Tommy enters tells a little story through the detritus spread about. Actor’s microexpressions are captured, the subtle tics of criminal minds that have made extreme suspicion and paranoia their default state. In-world models, vehicles especially, have been crafted with painstaking attention to detail. Every effort is being made to present a snapshot of the world in the 1930’s America. For this alone, I think the finished product will be well worth your time.
Despite a few script alterations, the story of Mafia: Definitive Edition feels largely unchanged. It’s a fairly standard crime drama in the vein of films like The Godfather or Goodfellas, a morality tale with the maxim “Pride goeth before the fall” borne foremost in mind. The Salieri family’s meteoric rise to power in Lost Heaven is the direct result of Tommy’s capability as a goon. Coming from a working class background in a US grappling with The Great Depression, Tommy understands the value of hard work. He brings the work ethic he wielded as a cab driver to the business of debt and blood. He’s not a terribly deep character — Tommy’s journey is the same as many you’ve seen in stories like this before. He enters the family as a starry-eyed kid, impressed by the money and power of his new contemporaries, and grows increasingly ground down by the life.
Where the game feels most like the original is, unsurprisingly, in its gameplay. The driving sequences are fine — Mafia: Definitive Edition actually has a strong grasp of how those clanky oldsmobiles drove and handled. It’s the on-foot gameplay that feels its age. There is a chase early in the game that should feel electric and urgent but instead feels a bit clunky. Instead of fleeing for his life, Tommy briskly jogs to safety and hoists himself easily over fences. It’s easy to tell that the original was produced in an era before Naughty Dog completely reinvented the way cinematic action sequences are presented. This is felt in most of the action sequences I played. What would have been gripping car chases in 2002 now feel a bit slow and simple.
I say these things not because I want to dump on a game that is quite clearly pulling out all the stops. I say it because I think it’s important to manage expectations. For those expecting something perhaps more slick and modern, you may be left wanting. For those who are interested in the preservation of older games, this may actually be exactly what you’ve been hoping to hear. I actually think what Mafia: Definitive Edition is doing is something more remakes and remasters should consider. This is a ground-up remake, which means that all of the parts that feel older or clunkier are that way by design. It’s on purpose. I respect this creative decision a great deal because the temptation to smooth down those rougher edges would be significant. But that wouldn’t be true to the spirit or experience of the original.
From what I can see so far, Mafia: Definitive Edition works hard to make the “definitive” in its title mean something. The finished version will be, without a doubt, the best version of this game to ever exist. I’m excited to see what Hangar 13 has done with that infamous race level.
Preview conducted on Windows PC with an early access build provided by the publisher.